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The New York Times, April 11, 1897:


Impressions of an American
on His First Trip to Great Britain's Capital
Customs Inspectors and the Ubiquitous Porters

    LONDON, April 2.--To steam through the English Channel from the Scilly Islands eastward along the coast and through the Straits of Dover into the Thames is a strong reminder of seeing a Shakespearean play for the first time. Scenes long familiar in print come to the front at every turn, though at a conservative English distance...
    Slowly the familiar places appear, all partly enveloped in a haze that is not called a fog here, only "a trifle thick." The English pilot is on board and in charge of the bridge, and we have some late English papers. We are in the world again, after a separation of more than two weeks, and it is consoling to learn that the storms have made every transatlantic steamer late, even the great ocean liners... Here is Portland Point looming up, then St. Alban's Head, then the Isle of Wight, with its tall Catherine's Hills.

    ...By next morning our course was a progress through one of Clark Russell's works. It was surprising to see how thoroughly he and his kind have "worked up" the English coast. Brighton, Beachy Head, Hastings, and by that time we were entering the Straits of Dover, with the Downs just in front of us, and South Foreland and North Foreland close by, and the French coast, in the neighborhood of Boulogne, a dim line far to the eastward...
    By afternoon of that day, the sixteenth from New York, we were in the Thames, and the river was gradually narrowing, and we began to see the real soil of England, some of it in tilled fields, some covered with the greenest of grass...

A Run Up the Thames.

    Now for landing arrangements. Passengers are busy packing, and the stewards become so extra attentive that there can be no doubt of the approaching end of the voyage. Up come the big trunks from the hold. We are really in England, but we do not know yet just what part of England is first to be honored by our presence. Our normal landing place is the Albert Dock, in London, but this delay may make a difference, and even the Captain cannot tell where he is to land his passengers, biped or quadruped, till he gets orders from the shore.

    What is the Thames between London and the sea even an experienced English traveler may easily ask; for Americans go up the Thames in Summer, but seldom go far down it. Well, there is not much inducement for going down the Thames beyond the precincts of the city. Broad, almost as broad as our New York Bay, it soon narrows into a stream smaller than the East River, running through an utterly flat country, marshy in spots, but well tilled whenever dry enough. Few dwelling houses are in sight; scarcely any, in fact; an indication, perhaps, of the unhealthiness of the marshes.
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    This town on the left is Gravesend; on the right is Tilbury, a much smaller place, consisting principally of a fort--one of the defenses of London. We appreciate the fact that we must learn to say right and left again, it will not do to be saying port and starboard on shore. Here, between the two towns, the ship slows down, down, till at length she comes to a stop--the first full stop since she left New York Bay.

Customs Inspectors and Porters.

    And here are our friends come to meet us, in a strange-shaped tug with the British jack flying at the stern. The motion is not quite stopped before the tug steams alongside, and our friends swarm up the rope ladder we lower for them. They are the faithful ones! Let us land in any civilized port in the world, and they are sure to be on hand to welcome us. They would feel disgraced if they were to let us land without proper attention. On this occasion they wear blue uniforms with brass buttons, and the importance of their work is duly depicted in their faces. One, two, ten, twelve, fifteen of these Custom House officers to look after our twenty passengers! We are fairly captured.

    "You'll not have a bit of trouble," one of the ship's officers said to me. "They are always very accommodating. Liquor and tobacco are the only things they pay much attention to. They look imposing, but they are not dangerous."
    When the actual handling of baggage began it proved that the entier London Customs House had not been sent out to watch for our ship. Only about half of the men were inspectors, the remainder being porters in uniform, anxious to earn the nimble sixpence by carrying trunks. My satchel and my single trunk having been placed in an imposing heap, I fell in due course into the hands of the British customs service.

    "Have you any liquors or tobacco?" asked the inspector.
    "No liquors," said I, "and a broken pound package of smoking tobacco."
    He opened the satchel, (instead of inviting me to open it, as our American custom is,) and a rare collection of curiousities he immediately came upon. A tempestuous voyage of sixteen days is not conducive to neatness in the satchel of a gentleman traveling alone. Pipes hobnobbed with soiled collars, and razors with felt slippers. I was frightened myself when I saw the terrible confusion, but the Inspector did not seem to mind. He shut the satchel up again, and gave it an artistic mark with blue chalk, and without opening the trunk, put the same mark upon that also.

    Naturally, I know by this time that the word "satchel" is a barbarism; that the true name of that thing which shuts with a snap and is always in confusion is "portmanteau," or "valise." But, up to this point, I am writing as if I knew no more about the proprieties than when I left New York. Presently I shall try to explain to my benighted countrymen that a trunk is not a trunk but a "box." We learn many little refinements over here.

On Shore at Tilbury.

    "I'll carry your luggage down, Sir," said one of the porters, touching his cap so politely that I thought he must have mistaken me for one of the royal family. "I'll hattend to it, Sir."
    Very good, but where was he to carry it down to? The revenue tug had gone on, and nothing had taken its place. But another tug was coming alongside, and in a few moments a man out of uniform climbed aboard and had a brief conversation with the Captain. This man was connected with the line, and the news soon spread that we were to be landed immediately at Tilbury, and taken up by train to London--about twenty-five miles.

    Down went the anchor that had been at rest since we left New York Bay sixteen days before, and presently along came another vessel that was not a tug, and that in our waters would hardly be called a steamboat. There was plenty of room on the open deck, and a companion-way far aft was said to lead to a little cabin, but nobody ventured down there, the weather being pleasant and the sight of land good for sea-worn eyes.
    There was hardly time to wonder why they kept the pilot in an open cockpit forward instead of in a pilothouse before we were landed at Tilbury, just across the river, every passenger having been provided with a first-class ticket for Fenchchurch Street Station, London.

    Then my uniformed porter came out strong. Up went the trunk upon his shoulder, up he took the satchel, and away we went down a long shed to the station and throught the gates to the train shed, where the train stood waiting.
    "I'll put the trunk in the luggage van, Sir," said the porter, "and the portmanteau in the compartment with you, Sir. Will you 'ave it that way, Sir?"
    "Very good," said I. "Any way you like," and when he returned from the front of the train, having attended to everything, and I handed him a sixpence, my conscience smote me. I had not been in England long enough yet to let a man carry my trunk and satchel nearly a quarter of a mile for a sixpence, so I hunted up two or three big copper pennies to add to it.
    "Thank you, kindly, Sir!" said the man, touching the rim of his cap, and I saw by his expression that he thought me a fool for giving him such a princely fee, though he did not stop to say so.

Off for London.

    A little, shrill whistle from the engine, a banging of doors by the guards, and we were off for London, without any guards or conductors whatever on the train, as far as I could see, barring the two or three men who shut themselves up in the last compartment of the last car, which was labeled "Guards' Van." Several of our passengers from the Mobile were in my compartment.
    "How do you manage about your baggage in London?" I asked one of them, a Londoner of experience. "Have you any system of baggage transfer there?"
    "Oh, no," said he, (in such a tone that I know he would have liked to add: "Thank Heaven, we have no such modern innovations there!") "but it's very simple. You just hold up your finger for a porter when you get out, and tell him to get you a four-wheeler. Then he'll get your luggage and carry it down to the coach, and you're all right."

    Most simple and convenient process! A porter, a four-wheeler, and the necessary identification of the baggage. It made me blush, almost, to think that I had ever gone through the complicated routine of handing my checks to a baggage agent and giving him my address. Then it was only a few weeks since I had been poking fun at a fellow-countryman who had been telling me about his four-wheelers and his 'ansoms in London; and here was I, about to engage in the same business.

    Between Tilbury and London lie many green fields, with hedges and clusters of tall trees; but on the whole the scenery is not interesting. The works of man in that region attract more attention than the works of nature. There is a great big gas works, for instance, about midway in the journey. We have some large gas tanks in New York, but none half equal to these in size. Each one looked as if it might be the forefather of hundreds of smaller tanks; and they nestled together, these giants, in a cluster of twenty or thirty. That was the first positive indication that we were approaching an immense city.

    The houses by the way, scarcely any standing alone in the country, but mostly gathered together in towns, had an unfamiliar look. There was nothing of the suburban New York about them; and these, I must confess, suited my fancy rather better than our own. They were of brick and stone, every one of them, without a single wooden building in sight. And they were old-fashioned in shape and dingy in color, and had solid roofs of tiles, with plenty of capacious chimneys, that spoke of broad fireplaces within and big rooms and comfort without much attempt at show. The entire absence of flaming red and yellow and brown and white paint is, of course, something of a shock to an American at first, but I think one may grow accustomed to it it time.

London Color and Mist.

    What I may call the "London color" predominated even at that distance from the city; a color that may be called dingy or sombre, as fancy dictates. It is hard to describe, but if you hang your a red brick in your fireplace for about six weeks, with a brisk fire constantly going, you will produce it exactly. Not black, not brown, but a dark, smoky gray, that grows richer and darker every year. It is not as doleful a color as one would think to read of it; and not nearly as chilling to the marrow as some of our brownstone streets in New York.

    The sun was shining when we landed at Tilbury, and we must have been still eight or ten miles from the heart of the city when the train ran into a composition of fog and smoke that shut out everything fifty feet away, and made one button his coat tighter and pull up the collar.

    "Is this a 'London particular?'" I asked one of my fellow passengers.
    "Oh, bless you, no!" said he; "this is only a little mist. In a 'London particular' you couldn't see the next track. As long as you see any one driving a horse, it's not a bad fog. In a real 'particular' they have to get down and lead the horses.
    This particular "mist" seemed to be confined to the suburbs, for by the time we reached Fenchurch Street it was gone. But then came a mist of a more embarrassing kind--the thick fog, in fact, of trying to secure one's baggage from an English railway train.

    It seems unkind to say even a word against any institution of a city in which one meets nothing but the utmost kindness from friend and stranger alike; particularly a city where Americans are treated with extra consideration as they are here. But, if some one does not tell these good Londoners how very, very far behind the century they are in their way of handling baggage, as well as in their most execrable and uncomfortable and unbelievable underground railways--well, I cannot say what might happen if no one were to tell them; but these things are both in need of regulation.
    "Just call a porter and have him get a four-wheeler," was the direction I had been given, and I did not have to wait for the train to stop to follow it. While the cars still moved an army of porters began to open the doors, and by simply looking at one and holding up a finger I secured him for my very own.
    "'Ave you any boxes, Sir?" said he, as I handed him my portmanteau. (Portmanteau, please observe, but I was not quite yet "up to" calling my trunk a box.}
    "I have a trunk in the luggage van," said I, and off he went like a shot with the satchel, and I after him as fast as I could through the crowd.

    He set the satchel down on a bench twenty feet away, where any person in the crowd might have picked it up with impunity, and began to search in the van for my trunk. Was it this one? No. That one? No. But what was to prevent any passenger from claiming the largest and best trunk of the lot, in the absence of checks or receipts? However, the trunk came out at last, and he shouldered it and made off through the crowd, and down the long stairs faster than I could follow him. In thirty seconds we were totally separated.
    "It would be very amusing," I could not help thinking, "amusing, that is, to other people, if a newspaper man should come over here from New York and lose his baggage the very moment of his arrival in London!"
    Down the long stairs I followed, but no porter, no trunk, no satchel. I can easily imagine how a provincial would be dazed in such a situation, unused to the crowds or the bustle. But we have greater crowds sometimes in our own settlement on Manhattan Island.
    Suddenly a whistle some distance in the street, and the country is safe. There stands my porter holding open the door of a four-wheeler, the trunk on top, the satchel inside. The driver leans down to get his directions.

In London at Last.

    "Fifty-two Torrington Square," I tell him, "stopping on the way at No. 3 Northumberland Avenue, Low's Exchange. I take you by the hour."
    That last was a bit of finesse I had picked up on the steamer. To go from Fenchurch station to Torrington Square, stopping by the way, it was cheaper to pay by the hour then by the course. A man can make a comfortable income in London by just watching these little things.
    "Very good, Sir," said he; and within two minutes we were going through streets so crowded that compared with them Broadway would be a country road. There is no treason in that, it is only fact. In my first hour in London I saw a dozen streets each much more crowded than Broadway; and since then I have seen a dozen or two more. Never mind, though, there is not a single twenty-six story building in this whole town--nor thirteen either.

    "Will you leave us your London address?" said Mr. Clement, when I went into Low's.
    "Here, for the present," I had to answer, "this is the only building I have ever seen in London. My fate will be settled in the next half hour."
    Torrington Square proved to be one of that community of squares made known to us by the British writers--Russell Square, Bedford, Gordon, Tavistock, Bloomsbury, and so on--all belonging, as well as the houses adjoining--to the Duke of Bedford. The novelist could not get on at all without these squares. Arrived at No. 52, the door opened hospitably without a ring, for I was expected.

    "I do not know how we will get your trunk in," said my hostess, "for there is no one here but the maid. Have you no porter?"
    "No, madam," said I. "I feel that I must apologize for traveling without a porter; but this time I have broken my rule and have actually left home without one. However, the cabby will bring the trunk in."
    "Oh, he wouldn't be allowed to!" said she, quite shocked. "They are not permitted to get down from the coach."
    "Indeed!" said I, quickly determining upon a little experiment in sociology. "Bring the trunk in, cabby."

    It was not my commanding manner that brought him down from his seat so suddenly and induced him to shoulder the trunk. It was the sixpence I held up between thumb and forefinger. The dear old cabby is the same the world over. With him the sixpence is like experience--it "does it." My rooms being ready, I became, after a fashion, a guest of his Grace of Bedford.

The above is the 2nd in a series of over 40 New York Times articles by reporter William Drysdale describing his European tour in 1897 and 1898. The 7th article in the series can currently be read on the England News page, the 29th and 30th articles from the series on the Paris News page, and the 31st article from the series on the France News page.